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Government Watchdogs Push 'Clean Contracting' Reform in Albany


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Alain Kaloyeros in 2016 (photo: The Governor's Office)


A coalition of budget and transparency watchdog groups are calling on the Legislature to pass, and for Governor Cuomo to sign, comprehensive “clean contracting” legislation in response to the bid-rigging scandal that rocked the state Capitol last year and continues to reverberate.

Specifically, at a Wednesday press conference the groups called for restoration of reviewing powers to State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for all state contracts exceeding $250,000, an end to non-academic contracting by state-controlled non-profit organizations, the creation of a comprehensive “database of deals,” and a prohibition against state authorities, corporations, and affiliated non-profits doing business with their board members.

The organizations -- including Reinvent Albany, New York Public Interest Group, Citizens Union, League of Women Voters, Fiscal Policy Institute, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- are also urging state leaders to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest by exploring options to limit campaign contributions from anyone seeking a state contract. Nineteen states and New York City -- but not the state -- already have these anti-pay-to-play laws in place.

“The moment of truth has arrived. State and federal prosecutors say $800 million in state economic development contracts were rigged, but so far, the Legislature and governor have yet to act,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, standing in the state Capitol. “It’s time they pass common sense legislation that includes independent oversight over state contracts, uniform contracting rules, and transparency that will prevent corruption and abuse before it happens.”

In 2016, an investigation into a sprawling alleged pay-to-play scheme connected to the Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program resulted in charges against nine men, including a former top aide to Cuomo, Joe Percoco, and the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Alain Kaloyeros, a close government partner of Cuomo’s, on bid-rigging, bribery, and other charges.

In the aftermath of the scandal, DiNapoli called for comprehensive procurement reforms, including the restoration of his office’s powers to review contracts with CUNY- and SUNY-affiliated non-profits -- a power that was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. The governor and lawmakers had reasoned that they could more quickly move economic development funds to important projects, especially in previously downtrodden Buffalo, where Cuomo has dedicated so much focus since taking office.

Following the enactment of the 2017 state budget, DiNapoli issued a statement noting the lack of procurement reform. “Hopefully before the end of session, the procurement reforms my office has advanced will be addressed,” he said. The Legislature is in session until mid-June. Legislative leaders are looking at some procurement reform measures, while Cuomo remains opposed to what DiNapoli and government watchdogs are calling for.

At the time of the arrests, Cuomo vowed sweeping reform, and proposed a slew of them in his 2017-2018 executive budget. However few of these oversight and transparency measures -- which are different from those being proposed by legislators, DiNapoli, and reform groups -- made it into the agreed-upon spending plan, announced in early April. Additionally, at least one other key oversight and transparency provision -- a mandated report on the governor’s Start-Up NY program -- was actually removed. Instead of focusing on reform, the governor has continued boosting the his signature economic development programs and infrastructure projects, to which the state is dedicating billions of dollars every year.

Senator John DeFrancisco, a Republican from Syracuse and deputy majority leader, has proposed legislation encompassing the Comptroller’s Clean Contracting Bill, which has been approved by the Senate Finance Committee, and some form of it is expected to pass the Senate. A similar bill sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, is currently being considered in the Assembly.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, both expressed support for the legislation during a joint appearance at the Times Union’s new media center in Colonie on Tuesday.

“I truly believe the comptroller plays an absolutely critical role in public policy in New York,” Flanagan said.

“You don’t always have to wait for something bad to happen to restore confidence to the public,” added Heastie.

The “database of deals” -- which has long been advocated by good-government organizations -- was supported by both the Senate and Assembly in their one-house budget resolutions, and the governor agreed in the budget to create a report by January 2018 detailing the spending by each economic development program. However, critics say the database should go further, providing data on the benefits received by each company.

Cuomo, in his executive budget, proposed prohibiting campaign finance contributions to the executive by vendors when they are bidding on and negotiating contracts, and expanding the power of the Office of the Inspector General to include the SUNY Research Foundation and CUNY-affiliated nonprofits. He also proposed instituting a Chief Procurement Officer who would be appointed by the governor, a position that many called redundant and less effective than the position of Comptroller.

“How many scandals and indictments are needed before we enact any meaningful reforms,” asked Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank. “We need to restore the public’s trust and put real accountability measures in place to ensure that we have full transparency and a solid return on investment before we continue to provide billions of taxpayer dollars to private businesses under the guise of economic development.”

The legislation is currently facing opposition from SUNY. A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor finds the legislation “duplicative” and “overly broad,” and believes it does not address the core of the process on contracting reform. She noted that the comptroller can already perform audits on all procurement contracts before they are paid, he just cannot slow down the initial contracting process when awards are made.

Flanagan has indicated that there may be room for negotiation on the final bill. Heastie has been vague as he plans to discuss the issue with his majority conference.

Cuomo’s former aides, associates, and donors are set to go on trial late this year.

Another spokesperson for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, sent Gotham Gazette a statement attacking the watchdog groups. "This is the same crew who preaches transparency for others and then sues to overturn state law and keep their benefactors secret. If we need a crash course on hypocrisy we know who to ask," he said.

“To create needed independence and effective oversight, the governor and the Legislature must enact sensible clean-contracting reforms,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “Not to do so would be an unfortunate and careless shirking of their greatest responsibility to ensure that government operates in the interest of the people. Stronger oversight and increased transparency in the awarding of state contracts, including providing the state Comptroller with increased independent authority for oversight and approval, are principles that a strong and effective democracy must embrace.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

On the Bus to Albany for Better New York Voting Laws


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One Vote Better NY lobbyist (photo: @NYCVotes)


Two charter buses idling in downtown Manhattan in the early hours of the morning on a weekday would usually be full of mismatched tourists from far-flung states and countries, waiting to gape at the Wall Street bull and his recently-placed female antagonist.

That was not the case for the buses that departed Church Street this past Tuesday morning, which, like their counterpart departing from the Bronx, were full of New Yorkers headed to Albany with a very specific mission: pushing legislators to adopt voting reforms that would make it easier for people to cast their ballots.

The group of about 150 activists, students, and assorted concerned citizens from Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Syracuse had risen at an hour when most fellow city-dwellers were still sound asleep, steeled themselves with coffee and muffins, and traveled to the state capital as part of the “Vote Better NY” campaign. The effort -- now an annual lobbying day -- was organized by the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s “NYC Votes” initiative, which partnered with schools and civic organizations like Dominicanos USA, CUNY, and the recently founded high school progressive group Coalition Z.

Chloe Baker, 21, a junior studying history at Queens College and interning at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), felt that the trip’s intent was to “get the legislators thinking about [voting reform], and remind them that they work for us,” a sentiment echoed by many of her fellow volunteers.

It’s the fourth year of the annual pilgrimage (Gotham Gazette was also along for the last two). To the chagrin of organizers, the objectives this year are the same as they were the first: to change the laws around voting so that citizens can more easily register and stay registered, and find it more feasible to actually vote once registered.

Those goals are put forward in proposals included in four bills introduced to the Democratically-controlled State Assembly -- they would need passage there, then in the state Senate, and to be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The New York Votes and Voter Empowerment Acts, sponsored by Democrats Michael Cusick of Staten Island and Brian Kavanagh of Manhattan, have some similar language; both would permit pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds and allow government agencies like housing authorities to automatically forward voter information for registration.

New York Votes would additionally establish same-day registration with a constitutional amendment (it isn’t permitted under the current state constitution), open polls two weeks before elections for what is known as “early voting,” expand absentee voting, and boost polling place resources and training. Voter Empowerment would establish online voter registration through the Board of Elections and automatically update registration information.

A separate early voting bill, also sponsored by Kavanagh, would, in its current version, establish an early-voting window beginning eight days before an election.

Finally, the so-called preclearance bill, sponsored by Brooklyn Democrat Latrice Walker, would seek to replicate some of the controls previously contained in the Voting Rights Act before it was gutted by the Supreme Court. Counties where 10 percent of the population are racial or language minorities or which have been found to have denied voting rights to protected populations would need to submit any changes in voting-related practical or policy changes to the Attorney General’s office for approval.

The early voting and voter empowerment bills both have versions in the Republican-controlled Senate. The former, sponsored by Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, was passed through the election committee and has been sent over to the local government committee. The latter, sponsored by Queens Democrat Michael Gianaris, was voted down, 6-3, in the elections committee less than 24 hours before the activists boarded their buses, including a “nay” vote by one of its own sponsors, Queens Democrat and Independent Democratic Conference member Tony Avella.

Yet what would seem like a deflating defeat was received with cautious optimism by activists, who are happy that the leadership in the Senate -- “where these bills go to die,” was how one NYC Votes staffer put it -- were even publicly acknowledging the ideas.

“Having [Senate Majority Leader John] Flanagan even talking about wanting to know the cost of it is a change in the right direction. Last year it would have been a flat ‘no,’” said Onida Coward Mayers, the NYCCFB director of voter assistance, referring to the Suffolk County Republican’s recent comments citing the potential cost of early voting, while leaving the door open to continued conversations on reform.

The day’s activities began with a rally held by legislators and advocates on the steps of the Capitol building’s famed “Million Dollar Staircase,” where it was moved after rain scuttled plans to hold it in Lafayette Park. After that, the group splintered into 11 teams, each with its own schedule of meetings; the idea was to try to have each legislator who had been open to a meeting hear from at least one of his or her own constituents. “They’re much more interested if it’s someone from their community, because they know that person represents many more at home,” explained Coward Mayers.

The group Gotham Gazette trailed soon found itself in the imposingly bright and bustling Legislative Office Building, where hordes of staffers, lobbyists, and activists tried hard not to run into each other as they shuffled between meetings. First on the group’s schedule was Senator Roxanne Persaud, who had to run out but left an aide, who asked not to be identified, to speak with the six-person delegation. The Brooklyn legislator is one of a handful of Senate mainline Democrats who have not sponsored both of the Senate bills. No Republicans have signed on.

As Amanda Melillo, public affairs officer at NYCCFB, explained that multi-hour lines dissuaded voters from participating in elections, the staffer nodded and spoke of her own experience during last year’s presidential election, saying, “I was out there, I saw the last-minute rush. I understand.” While she couldn’t quite commit to the senator sponsoring the bill, she promised to discuss it with her boss, and ended with the hope that “when we meet next year, it’ll be better.”

A cramped elevator ride and brisk walk through halogen-lit hallways deposited the group at the office of Brooklyn Senator Jesse Hamilton, who greeted Coward Mayers with a hug and spent a few minutes posing for photographs with the activists. Hamilton and his seven colleagues in the IDC, a group that forms a governing coalition with Senate Republicans, are crucial to pushing through the bills that still have a chance in this legislative session, which runs through mid-June.

The group quickly scored their first clear success: Melillo explained the intent of the preclearance measure and had not quite finished asking Hamilton to introduce it in the Senate before he piped up with, “I can do that, that’s not a problem.”

He was a bit less receptive when the volunteers raised the issue of early voting. When Bella Wang, a 26-year-old PhD student at Princeton and former poll worker, brought up voters waiting “one to three hours” to get their ballot, Hamilton said that “that’s only in presidential elections that you get three hours.”

Wendy Odle-Harvey, a volunteer in her fifties whose family moved to Brooklyn from Barbados in the 1970s, chimed in to say that if people vote in any election to find long lines and voting machine problems, they “don’t want to come out to vote for senator, for local races.”

Hamilton promised to look a the bill, but told the group that they’d be best served by “talking to the Republicans, because you’re preaching to the choir.”

Case in point, the group’s next scheduled meeting was with Republican Senator Marty Golden, of Brooklyn, who quickly got into a back-and-forth with Wang when she stated that people with oddly-spelled and hyphenated names often find themselves left off the voter rolls due to human error.

“We have people with names, hyphenated or not hyphenated, voting in several elections” he said, and asserted that there were “people bused in from the Bronx and Westchester to vote in Brooklyn races.” Wang shot back that you were more likely to be “crushed by furniture” than to commit voter fraud, a claim that Golden vigorously disputed. While there have been sporadic claims of voter fraud in New York, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declared earlier this year that there was not one substantiated incident of voter fraud in New York in 2016.

As Melillo ticked off reasons why New York’s voter turnout is so low - 41st out of the 50 states in the 2016 general election, with 57 percent turnout - Golden asked if it couldn’t be that “people don’t care,” and argued that high immigrant populations and cultural differences led to low turnout in some districts, pointing to “Palestinian and Arab communities” in his own constituency. “Do they vote? No,” he said.

Despite the disagreements, Golden conceded that improvements could be made to the state’s voting procedures, saying “there are a couple of things we can do to help people register and vote, and I’m open to that,” and agreeing to consider the bills. He threw out some of his own ideas, such as making poll workers’ pay non-taxable and getting the MTA to provide expanded service on election days.

Asked about the probability that he would support any of the bills were they to come to a vote, he said “our leader is having conversations about the bill,” but declined to definitively take a position.

Downstairs in the building’s cafeteria, past a group of Army personnel manning a series of small tables covered in military equipment as part of something called Fort Drum Day, the activists took a breather.

“I didn’t really know what to expect…Say ‘I’m a constituent’ and maybe they’ll listen more, but there are a lot of groups here, so sometimes it feels like lip service,” said Natasha Padilla, 38, a Brooklynite who had taken a vacation day to go on the trip, as a group of people in bright green shirts emblazoned with the Airbnb logo chatted quietly 10 feet away.

The final meeting of the day for the group Gotham Gazette followed took its members back through the packed elevators with the electronic voice and to the office of Brooklyn Assembly Member Peter Abbate Jr., who was not available. Aide Joe Brady took his place for a quick discussion that largely consisted of Brady agreeing that there were issues with voting and pledging to discuss the proposals with the Assembly member.

The issue of voting reform is a particularly sensitive one for legislators, Coward Mayers said, because it “taps into their livelihoods. They want to be safeguarded.” If successful, the reforms would shift their voter base, empowering a whole slate of people previously not involved in politics. That prospect can be frightening to elected officials that can pretty much predict the comfortable margin they’ll be reelected with under the current system. Incumbents in New York, where there are no term limits for state legislators, do very well election after election, often running unopposed or with nominal opposition.

For the activists who gave up their weekday to show up at their doorstep, the legislators’ reticence is understandable but misplaced. With “a few million dollars in a multibillion dollar budget,” as Melillo put it, they could bring hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers into the political process. (The state budget that was recently passed totals $153.1 billion in operating funds.)

In a telling exchange with Senator Hamilton, Wang, the PhD student, brought up Minnesota, a state with same-day registration and early voting that also happens to have had the highest percentage turnout in 2016 elections. As Hamilton began to speculate about the reasons Minnesotans may simply have a greater interest in voting, Padilla cut him off.

“They got their people to vote. And it’s really cold there,” she said.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Murky Definitions for Government Entities Undermine Transparency


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Gov. Cuomo in Buffalo (photo: The Governor's Office)


When Rockland County Democratic Party Chair Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky fills out her annual state disclosure forms, she consults her husband for question six, which requires the listing of contracts held with a state or local agency held by the filer, filer’s spouse, or unemancipated child.

Evan Stavisky, a partner in the prominent Albany lobbying firm The Parkside Group, after checking with the firm’s lawyer, has told his wife that his company does not represent any government entities. So, for the past six years, Kristen has entered “none” for the question, according to the disclosure documents obtained from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

At the same time, between 2010 and 2016, Parkside pulled in more than $1 million from representing quasi-public entities, including four foundations affiliated with city and state universities, three New York City-based public library systems, and a local economic development corporation, according to the lobbying firm’s disclosure filings that can be viewed on the JCOPE website.

One of these contracts, on behalf of the Queens Economic Development Corporation -- which is treated by state law as a public authority -- expired in 2010, so according to filing instructions, Kristen Stavisky was not required to declare it on her JCOPE form for that year. But the other clients -- foundations associated with the CUNY Graduate Center, Queensborough Community College, Queens College, CUNY Creative Arts Team, and SUNY’s University at Buffalo, as well as Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library -- fall into an ambiguous zone, defined as local or state agencies in some statutes of New York State law, but not others.

Kristen Stavisky became Rockland County party chair in February 2011, so her first required JCOPE form covered 2010. Political party chairs play a significant role in deciding which candidates run for local and state office, so they are held to the same disclosure standards as elected officials. Meanwhile, Evan Stavisky’s company is paid big money to lobby those same city and state officials on policy and funding matters that impact their clients.

“The reason that party committee chairs are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest because they wield considerable power in relation to elected officials, and they provide the political apparatus to get people elected,” said NYPIRG Executive Director Blair Horner.

As the Stavisky filings show, there is a multitude of quasi-governmental entities that exist in grey area of New York law, and how to classify these entities has been the subject of some debate. A rudimentary search pulled up at least a dozen different definitions for “state agency” and “local agency” in New York State law.

A lawyer for Parkside pointed to the state’s public officer’s law, which defines a state agency as a “state department, any public benefit corporation, public authority or commission at least one of whose members is appointed by the governor, or the state university of New York or the city university of New York.”

While each of the aforementioned Parkside clients rely to some degree on government funding (Queens Library, for example, draws 94 percent of its revenue from city, state and federal sources), have board members appointed by city or state officials, and may serve a public function, as independent 501(c)(3) nonprofits, one could argue these entities do not qualify as a public authority or public benefit corporation. But like more typical government agencies, they are subject to Freedom of Information Laws, according advisory opinions issued by the New York State Committee on Open Government.

A person who willfully files financial disclosure forms incorrectly could face a penalty of up to $40,000 from JCOPE. A spokesperson for the ethics agency -- who is prohibited by law from discussing the disclosure forms of a particular filer -- declined to offer clarification on whether nonprofits associated with CUNY and SUNY were considered government entities according to the public officer's law, but said JCOPE reviews filings and pursues investigations when there appears to be a discrepancy. In other words, the only person who can request an opinion on how a particular filer should answer question six on the JCOPE disclosure form is the filer.

There is also is a lack of consensus on the definition of a “public benefit corporation” and a “public authority,” terms sometimes used interchangeably.

According to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office, public authorities -- which range from transportation agencies like the MTA to bodies created to spur economic development like Empire State Development -- are typically run by boards of directors and are not subject to the same transparency and disclosure as other branches of government. They are also able to borrow money without voter approval, as is constitutionally required of government agencies, a habit that has put the state in fiscal jeopardy.

Public authorities are increasingly enmeshed with state and local government operations, according to the comptroller. They do most of the state’s borrowing and supply revenue streams for the state budget. Sometimes these entities spawn subsidiary public authorities, which are subject to even fewer restrictions. The state’s first public authority, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was created in 1921, and more than 1,000 State and local public authorities, and subsidiaries of authorities, have been authorized since.

In 2004 and 2009, in response to a number of investigations into mismanagement, irresponsible borrowing, and questionable financial practices on the part of public authorities and their subsidiaries, attempts were made to streamline the definition and oversight of public authorities.

Then-Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, raising concerns about “backdoor borrowing,” joined with then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to introduce the Public Authority Reform Act of 2004 “to capture all of these entities in one place and impose new rules to govern the conduct of public authorities and their representatives.” The proposed legislation compiled a list of “more than 640” entities, classifying them in A,B, C, and D classes. Class A and B public authorities would be required to adopt specific principles of corporate governance and fiscal integrity. They recommended Queensborough Community College Auxiliary Enterprise Association and the CUNY Research Foundation (two organizations that hired Parkside within the past six years) be classified as “Class B” public authorities.

Based on these recommendations, the Legislature and Governor George Pataki enacted the Public Authorities Accountability Act of 2005, later amended by the Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009, which established the Authorities Budget Office (ABO) and an official definition for “public authority.” The legislation also directed the ABO to maintain a list of state and local authorities, a list that currently does not include CUNY and SUNY foundations, the New York City library systems, or other quasi-governmental nonprofits.

But while the ABO’s office lists 578 authorities, a recent count by the state comptroller’s office found 1,192 state, local, and interstate or international authorities. A footnote in the comptroller’s report addresses this discrepancy: "Due to statutory, regulatory and administrative differences between the Office of the State Comptroller and the ABO, the ABO’s list does not identify certain entities included in this count, such as subsidiaries (which ABO includes with the parent authority), inactive authorities, and college auxiliary corporations."

Government reformers say this ever-morphing patchwork of definitions only serves to confuse the public and obscure conflicts of interests, rather than increase transparency.

“Complexity defeats accountability and complexity defeats democracy. One of the reasons I’m a reformer is to simplify how things work,” said SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin. “The purpose of disclosure is for the person who is letting sunshine in to hold people accountable. If the detail of the law prevents transparency from doing its job, then it’s getting in the way of good government.”

While the Staviskys' situation is somewhat unique, this murky territory around what constitutes a government entity creates pitfalls for elected officials and others filing annual disclosure forms.

Furthermore, lax guidelines surrounding CUNY and SUNY nonprofits have led to wasteful spending and, in worst case, exploitation by bad actors. The state is currently facing a crisis of trust in government, according to public opinion polls. In the last year, both the CUNY and SUNY systems were rocked by allegations of financial impropriety involving related nonprofits. Now, more voices are calling for increased oversight of these nonprofits, which, like public authorities and public benefit corporations, are financially intertwined with government agencies and serve a public function.

Notably, two privately-run, deep-pocketed nonprofits affiliated with SUNY Polytechnic Institute -- Fort Schuyler Management Corporation and Fuller Road Management Corporation -- were at the center of federal and state investigations into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program. Former SUNY Poly president and CEO Alain Kaloyeros and Cuomo’s ex-executive deputy secretary Joe Percoco, along with six others, will face trial later this year on charges of bid-rigging, bribery, and extortion.

Parkside’s business with CUNY Research Foundation factors into another ongoing investigation into widespread misuse of funds by CUNY-tied nonprofits by State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott. An interim report by the inspector general released last year highlights presidential discretionary funds doled out by the research foundation that are frequently tapped for housekeeping costs, and parties, personal drivers, and club memberships. The report also notes that CUNY-affiliated foundations spent a significant amount of money on lobbyists “engaged in questionable and seemingly redundant tasks,” even though the system employs its own centralized and school-based government relations staff.

“These costs are significant to CUNY, and while they may be warranted in certain situations, appear to be duplicative in several cases. Even at this early stage of the Inspector General’s investigation, it seems clear that these activities warrant scrutiny and that centralization of these services should be explored,” wrote Leahy Scott.

Of $842,275 spent on outside lobbying by the CUNY Research Foundation during the report’s 2013-2015 review period, nearly 20 percent went to Parkside Group, and another 50 percent went to two lobbying firms founded by former Parkside executives, according to year-by-year comparison of the report and JCOPE lobbying disclosure forms. The firms were hired to lobby the Legislature and New York City Council on funding as well as policy matters.

When the report was released in November 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had been dealing with blowback for the scandals tied to his economic development programs, seized on the news of the CUNY investigation as an opportunity to push for sweeping reform across the state and city university systems, vowing to expand the jurisdiction of the state inspectors general to cover the university-based nonprofits, and calling for these entities to embrace good government practices. Language in the enacted 2017 budget expands the inspector general’s jurisdiction to include CUNY nonprofits, particularly, the research foundation, but notably it does not restore the state comptroller’s oversight over procurement through SUNY non-profits -- a power that was stripped in 2011 to expedite Cuomo’s economic development programs.

When reached by phone, Evan Stavisky, joined by his lawyer, offered a series of evolving explanations for their determination on whether Kristen Stavisky would disclose Parkside contracts, but noted that it was immediately obvious to them that as nonprofits, these clients were not government entities. He did not seek advice from JCOPE.

“Each year, our firm completes 12 separate filings for every single client for city and state regulators, a total of more than 500 annually. Since Kristen Stavisky became chair of the Rockland Democratic Party, our firm has filed 3,000 lobbying disclosures and not a single one has been for a government agency. It is false to suggest otherwise,” said Dan Katz, executive vice president and a general counsel to The Parkside Group, in a statement.

While political party chairs are not prohibited from lobbying the New York State Legislature themselves, they are barred from offering “goods or services having a value in excess of twenty-five dollars to any state agency” and from working on “the adoption or repeal of any rule or regulation having the force and effect of law,” according to a 1992 advisory opinion from New York State Ethics Commission, the first incarnation of JCOPE. The law does not necessarily extend to household members of the chairperson, but filers must indicate government contracts exceeding $1,000 held by a spouse or unemancipated child.

The decades-old regulation, along with most of the state’s modern government ethics law, sprang from a 1986 corruption probe that rocked Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, which landed a Bronx Democratic Party chair in prison, and was marked by suicide of Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who was also implicated in the scheme. The party chair, Stanley Friedman, was a stockholder in a company called Citisource Inc., which benefited from a $22.7 million contract with the city’s Traffic Violations Bureau for traffic agents' handheld computers.

The reforms implemented in the Ethics in Government Act of 1987, which were hailed as a major turning point for government accountability in New York, were intended "to enhance public trust and confidence in our governmental institutions [by strengthening] prohibitions against behavior which may permit or appear to permit undue influence or conflicts of interest,” according to then-Governor Mario Cuomo. Many amendments have been signed into law since.

This question of whether a political party chair can lobby government entities is likely to resurface over Keith Wright, currently the Manhattan Democratic Party chair, who earlier this year accepted a position at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, LLP, a lobbying and government affairs firm which represents The North Shore Board of Education, a government entity, and NYC & Company, a government-funded nonprofit. Wright, who left his seat in the Assembly in an unsuccessful 2016 congressional bid, was not listed in the firm’s January–February JCOPE filings. A spokesperson for the New York County Democratic Committee said Wright does not perform lobbying duties as part of his new role; he advises clients on government affairs.

The Staviskys maintain that Parkside’s business interests are kept separate from Kristen’s duties as Democratic committee leader and that there is no evidence that Evan or his company has benefited monetarily from the arrangement. Critics actually point to other members of the Stavisky family who wield the type of power likely to attract clients like libraries and SUNY and CUNY foundations. Policy and funding matters concerning these institutions fall under the purview of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, where Democratic Senator Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens, the mother of Evan Stavisky, is the ranking member.

Parkside’s government-affiliated nonprofit contracts picked up in 2009-2010, the last time Democrats held a ruling majority in the Senate. Toby Ann, a former social studies teacher, chaired the Senate’s Higher Education Committee that year.

At the time, Toby Ann, seeking an advisory opinion, wrote to JCOPE that though she was not required to, she would prohibit her son, but not his partners, from lobbying members of the Senate. Despite calls for a probe from ethics watchdogs, a 2009 advisory opinion from the state's Legislative Ethics Commission deemed the arrangement “appropriate,” the New York Daily News reported.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentifed the source of a 2009 advisory opinion. In 2009, the ethics advisory agency for state legislators was the Legislative Ethics Commission.The article has also been updated to include a comment from New York County Democratic Committee.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Activists, Lawmakers Rally for Voting Reform at Capitol


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Tuesday's rally (photo: @NYCVotes)


A coalition of electoral reform activists were joined by Democratic state lawmakers during their annual pilgrimage to the New York State Capitol Tuesday to call for legislation that would remove barriers to the ballot and ensure that eligible New Yorkers are provided more opportunity to vote.

“Vote Better NY” seeks common sense changes to New York's voting laws to ensure that more eligible New Yorkers make it to the polls. This year, the organization is advocating for a slew of bills, including early voting, the Voter Empowerment Act, which would streamline the registration process, the New York Votes Act, which refers to automatic registration, as well as new preclearance measures before any additional requirements are added to the current voter registration process.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblymember Latrice Walker, and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh attended the rally, which was organized in large part by NYC Votes, the voter engagement arm of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and key member of the Vote Better NY coalition. More than 100 organizers and activists boarded three coach buses from the city early Tuesday morning to rally at the Capitol and then meet in small groups with individual legislators to lobby them toward supporting the voting reform agenda. There has been little movement on such reform in Albany despite a good deal of support and New York’s decidedly antiquated laws.

“Elections have consequences. New York has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation and that should embarrass us,” said Stewart-Cousins, in a statement put out by Vote Better NY. “We should be making it easier to vote and not be putting up roadblocks. That is why I have advanced legislation to enable early voting, and why the Senate Democratic Conference has rolled out multiple pro-voter bills.”

New York has some of the most arcane voter access guidelines in the nation. In 2014, the state ranked 49 of the country’s 50 states in terms of voter turnout. While other states have improved their voting laws to increase ballot access, New York’s abysmal turnout has grown worse for presidential, gubernatorial, and New York City mayoral elections.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), who participated the rally, said, “New York ranks consistently as one of the nation's worst states in terms of voter participation, driven by our archaic voter registration and election administration systems. Still, young people want to participate in democracy. NYPIRG sees that every day on college campuses across the state.”

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, a new movement to overhaul New York’s voting laws gained support from several high-profile city and state officials, including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

During his 2017 State of the State speaking tour and in his executive budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a trio of significant reforms: automatic registration, same-day registration, and early voting. Though the governor vowed to “try like heck” to have the reforms included in the state budget, they did not make it into the final policy and spending plan that was announced last month. In an April appearance at the governor’s mansion, Cuomo blamed the Legislature, which he said lacked the appetite for such reforms.

"My point is: There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo told reporters during an annual Easter open house.

While increasing voter access should be a bipartisan issue, Republicans in the State Senate have historically blocked electoral reform measures, for fear that the conference would lose its razor-thin majority. After appearing at a rally for the corrections officers’ union Monday, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, suggested he may be open to discussing the idea, but couple that sentiment with skepticism about the cost and implementation of any real voting reform.

“It depends how you define voter access; it’s a conversation we should be having regardless,” Flanagan told reporters, citing enlarging the font on the ballot as a sensible reform measure.

When asked about early voting, he told reporters, “Early voting is defined so many ways, is it just one day? I was just joking around that I’m supportive of early voting, just start 5 o’clock instead of 6. It is a serious subject and something we should be talking about, but how do you do that without costing astronomical amounts of money? Our county boards of election are strapped right now.”

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 1


New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

President Donald Trump is due back in New York City for the first time since taking office this week -- see below for details and expect protests, traffic gridlock, and political statements from all corners.

The State Legislature continues its post-budget legislative session in Albany, with only six weeks to go. There will be legislation announced and bills voted through as early as Monday. Tuesday will see a group of New Yorkers lobbying for better voting laws hit the Capitol. See below for details.

City Council executive budget hearings start this week, just after Mayor Bill de Blasio presented his revised spending plan, an $84.86 billion executive budget -- hearing details below.

There will be candidate forums for mayor and in the Republican primary in the "open" City Council 43rd District in Southern Brooklyn this week. Speaking fo the mayoral race, we're watching early this week for a decision from John Catsimatidis about whether he'll join the Republican mayoral promary -- Politico New York's Azi Paybarah reported at the end of last week that Catsimatidis was going to spend the weekend with close advisors deciding whether to run. [UPDATE: Catsimatidis announced Monday that he will not run for mayor this year.]

And, several interesting panel events, awards ceremonies, and much more. See below for all the details of the Week Ahead!

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany. During session, "The Senate will be acting...on a bill that strengthens and makes permanent "Kendra's Law."" Sponsored by Sen. Cathy Young, the legislation is "an end of session Senate GOP priority," according to a Senate spokesperson.

At the State Assembly on Monday: The Standing Committees on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions; Consumer Affairs and Protections; Energy; and Environmental Conservation will hold a joint hearing regarding the Clean Energy Standard.

On Monday morning, "Mayor de Blasio will greet NYC Ferry commuters on the first day of service as boats dock at Manhattan’s Pier 11" at 8:25 a.m., then the mayor "will appear live on Pix 11 Morning News" at about 8:45 a.m. The mayor has two other public events Monday -- see below.

City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will be in Albany Monday. At about 2:30 p.m., she'll address members of the State Assembly Education Committee in the Speaker’s Conference Room at the Capitol.

At 7:30 a.m. Monday: "On May Day...immigrant and worker rights groups led by the Center for Popular Democracy and Make the Road New York will escalate their newly-launched “Corporate Backers of Hate campaign” with an early morning action at a major corporation targeted for supporting and benefiting from Trump’s hateful agenda. The march, which will start at Bryant Park, will kick off events commemorating May Day (International Worker’s Day), which is expected to feature scores of demonstrations in New York and around the country."

At 11 a.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will host a press conference on an unannounced topic, at 72nd Street and Broadway.

At noon Monday, a “strike to defend refugees, migrants, and all workers” will be held at Union Square in honor of “May Day” (May 1). Meanwhile, uptown, Senator Marisol Alcantara, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, Assemblymember Carmen de la Rosa, and City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez will lead a strike by immigrant business owners in protest of the Trump administration’s immigration policies from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.

"New York State Senate Labor Chairwoman Marisol Alcantara (D-Manhattan), joined by members of the Independent Democratic Conference and leaders of major labor unions, will announce legislation to combat union-busting tactics used in right-to-work states spreading nationally on Monday, May 1 in the New York State Capitol Building, 3rd Floor, Outside Senate Chambers at 12:30 p.m."

At 4 p.m. Monday, Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, Senator Jeff Klein, Bronx BP Ruben Diaz Jr, Bronx Democratic Chairman Marcos Crespo, the BOEDC, and the Bronx Tourism Council will host “Bronx Day in Albany” at the Hart Theater Lounge at the Egg.

At 5 p.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio, Comptroller Stringer and other officials will deliver remarks at the "Rise Up New York! 2017 May Day Rally and Celebration" in Foley Square.

On Monday evening on NY1, there will be a special Road to City Hall Town Hall on President Trump’s impact on New York, featuring CUNY students and special guests including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Member Joseph Borelli.

Tuesday
A"On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio will travel to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he will deliver remarks at 1199 SEIU’s Unity and Power Membership Convention. This event is closed press. In the afternoon, the Mayor will return to New York City."

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has three public events Tuesday: at 10:30 a.m. she will speak at National Puerto Rican Day Parade Press Conference at One World Observatory; at 2 p.m. she will deliver opening remarks at the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services hearing on bail reforms, at 250 Broadway; and at 7:15 p.m. she will speak at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger 8th Annual Planter Awards.

At the City Council on Tuesday
-The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
-The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to bedbugs
-The Committees on Public Housing and Environmental Protection will meet jointly at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing at the Miccio Community Center in Brooklyn regarding “NYCHA’s Record in Removing Mold From Public Housing,” as well as to discuss a proposed law in relation to “requiring licensure for mold abatement, assessment and remediation work and setting minimum standards for such work.”
-The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at 11 a.m.
-The Committees on Public Safety and Transportation will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “Engaging New Yorkers to Help Hold Hit-and-Run Perpetrators Accountable,” as well as to discuss two proposed laws relating to hit-and-runs.
-The Committee on Mental Health will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding ThriveNYC.
-The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 1 p.m.
-The Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services will meet at 2 p.m. to discuss several proposed laws regarding bail and access to information.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

On Tuesday, the “VoteBetterNY” coalition will hold “Voter Day 2017” in Albany, “an annual day of advocacy for statewide voting reform.” Participants will urge Albany legislators “to take down barriers to voting in New York and to guarantee the right to vote for every eligible New Yorker with the passage of common sense reforms.” There will be a rally at 9:30 a.m. at the Capitol.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will address the State Senate Education Committee at Legislative Office Building.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the New York League of Conservation Voters and the Citizens Budget Commission will co-host a discussion on the “pros and cons of a constitutional convention in New York State.” A debate will occur between Gerald Benjamin, the director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, and Jerry Kremer, chairman of Empire Government Strategies, moderated Marcia Bystryn, President of the NYLCV.

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Think Outside the Box will host a panel “discussing solitary confinement in New York and efforts to stop the torture,” featuring Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, as well as “New York Lawmakers, Survivors of Solitary Confinement, Mental Health Experts & Others.” Following this, there will be a rally on the State Capitol’s “Million Dollar Staircase.”

At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale will host the “Bronx Israel Independence Day Festival” at the Bayit in Riverdale.

Wednesday
At the City Council on Wednesday
-The Committee on Health will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws related to food safety and inspection in schools, restaurants, and street vendors.
-The Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections will meet at 10:30 a.m.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Center for an Urban Future will host a symposium, “From Credential to Career: How to Get More Adults in New York on the Path to a High School Equivalency and Postsecondary Degree” at the Hilton Albany. Featured speakers include Amy Dalsimer, the executive director of the College and Career Pathways Institute at LaGuardia Community College; Kevin Smith, deputy commissioner of the New York State Education Department; and Stacie Evans, adult literacy advisor at the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Citizens Union will host a discussion, “A Day in the Life of NY Legislators,” featuring a panel of legislators detailing “how they represent their constituents, make critical decisions about New York public policy and balance competing needs.” Panelists include Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblymember and Republican Mayoral Candidate Nicole Malliotakis, Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, and others. (This discussion will take place after the annual Citizens Union members’ meeting, which is from 6-6:30 p.m.)

Between Wednesday and Saturday, the “Smart Cities” conference will take place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, focusing on how to ready cities for the 21st century with regards to technology and urban planning.

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday
-The Committee on Finance will hold the first executive budget hearing with the Office of Management & Budget at 10 a.m., following by Design & Construction at noon
-The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m.

President Donald Trump will be in New York City on Thursday; he’ll be meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the USS Intrepid to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, the New York City Bar Association will host a Continuing Legal Education program on affordable housing, focusing on “current strategies to finance and preserve affordable housing projects in New York City.” Panels will convene to provide insight on three topics: “New Housing Tax Incentives; Alternative Model for Permanent Affordability - Community Land Trusts; and a New Strategy for Public Housing.”

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Lexington Democratic Club will honor Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at its 2017 Gala Dinner.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Manhattan Institute will host its 17th annual Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner. This year’s honorees are former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Eagle Capital Management Co-founder Ravenel B. Curry III.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, City & State will host its second borough series event of 2017, focusing on Brooklyn. The event will recognize prominent individuals who live or work in Brooklyn. Borough President Eric Adams will deliver the keynote.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Brooklyn Republican Party will host a debate at Bay Ridge Manor featuring three Republicans vying for the “open” seat in the City Council’s 43rd District. The candidates are Liam McCabe, John Quaglione, and Bob Capano. The debate will be moderated by the Brooklyn Eagle.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Alliance for a Human Scale City and the East Harlem Civic Alliance will hold a bipartisan mayoral forum at PS 108 in Manhattan. Confirmed attendees are Democrats Sal Albanese, Tony Avella, Kevin Coenen, and Robert Gangi; Republican Darren Dione Aquino; and independent Bo Dietl.

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday: executive budget hearings regarding CUNY at 10 a.m. with the Committee on Higher Education, and regarding Youth and Community Development at 11:30 a.m. with the Committee on Youth Services

At 8:15 a.m. Friday, the Center for New York City Law will host its third annual “Civic Fame Awards.” NY1 anchor Errol Louis will host. Honorees include former mayor David Dinkins; Wayne Hawley, former executive director and general counsel of the Conflicts of Interest Board; Susan Hinkson, a retiring member of the Board of Standards & Appeals; Con Ed; and NY1’s Inside City Hall.

At 9 a.m. Friday, the Manhattan Institute will host “Reforming The Fed And Government-Sponsored Enterprises,” featuring two panels focusing on monetary policy and on federal reserve reform. John Williams, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, will deliver the keynote.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Legislative Session Starts with Flurry of Activity, and Cuomo Out of Town


Cuomo Rochester

Gov. Cuomo in Rochester (photo: The Governor's Office)


The New York State Legislature returned to session Monday after its annual two-week Passover/Easter post-budget hiatus, and lawmakers want the governor to know they are ready to work.

While Governor Andrew Cuomo continued his state-wide infrastructure and economic development tour this week, during the bustling first two days of session the Legislature advanced some provocative legislation, sending a clear message to the governor that the final two months of session will not be as uneventful as he has predicted.

At an Easter Eve celebration at the Executive Mansion, Cuomo had told reporters that the state budget, passed a few days prior and nine days into the new fiscal year, had already tackled virtually all the important issues, and that the Legislature simply lacks the willpower to push through items that were dropped, such as government ethics reform or the Dream Act.

“If we didn’t get it done in the budget, it means you didn’t have the political will to get it done,” Cuomo said. “So, I’ll respond to the initiatives that the Legislature comes up with, but frankly everything big that we wanted to get done we got done in the budget.”

Rather than focus on pushing the Assembly and Senate on any measures he supports, the governor said, he would spend the next two months focused on his revved up upstate economic development programs and infrastructure projects across the state. The governor, during budget negotiations, ensured that all of his signature projects made it into the emergency extender bills passed April 3, after there was no full budget agreement between Cuomo and the Legislature by the April 1 deadline. (The full state budget for the new fiscal year would be passed about a week later.)

As if to reinforce his point, Cuomo spent Tuesday -- a chaotic session day at the Capitol -- in Rochester, announcing a $53.7 million transformation of the city’s airport and $500 million for his Finger Lakes Forward initiative, which is intended to spur economic growth in the region. On Wednesday, he continued his Finger Lakes region tour in Auburn, where he did a ceremonial bill-signing for $2 million to clean up of Owasco Lake, which has been impaired by the presence of Blue-Green Algae, and upgrade drinking water systems in nearby towns.

But while there many compromises made in the budget -- including on key policy issues, like raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 and an expansion of ride-hailing apps -- lawmakers made clear in their first days back at the Capitol that they have unfinished business to address.

Most significant for New York City is an extension of mayoral control of city schools, which is due to expire in June. Senate Republicans are now seeking to tie the extension, which would grant Mayor Bill de Blasio between one and three years more of control over the public school system, to an increase of the state’s charter school cap, according to NY1 and other reports.

"Well if we can link it to anything to get some legislation that's important to the Senate I think we should do that," Deputy Senate Majority Leader John DeFrancisco, a Republican from Syracuse, told NY1. "I think it's ultimately going to get done whether it's one year or two years or whatever it may be," he said of extending mayoral control. Senate Republicans have made de Blasio, a first-term Democrat, sweat year after year, with back to back one-year extensions and public hearings.

In another apparent jab at the governor, DeFrancisco sponsored legislation that would restore the state Comptroller’s jurisdiction to review procurement and contracts for certain economic development projects involving SUNY and its affiliated non-profits -- a power stripped from the Comptroller in 2011. Lax oversight of these entities and their contracting has been blamed, in part, for the massive bid-rigging scandal involving Cuomo’s former top aide Joe Percoco and eight other men associated with the administration.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has been calling for the restoration of these powers so that his office can vet processes and contracts. The bill passed the Senate finance committee Tuesday. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, said the legislation shows an “admirable goal,” but only that he would discuss the details with his conference.

Democrats in the Assembly majority and the Senate minority have also signaled this week that they plan to continue pushing for women’s health protections, voting reform, and the Dream Act.

At a Tuesday press conference for electoral reform hosted by the League of Women Voters and Democrats from both chambers, Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins responded to the governor’s suggestion that the Legislature had slim chance of passing such reforms post-budget.

“I’ve heard the governor say before that there is no appetite for things in the past and as it turns out, there was an appetite and we’ve gotten things done,” said Stewart-Cousins. “People need to step up and say it’s OK for eligible voters to vote.”

While Cuomo included in his executive budget early voting and other reform proposals to update the state’s antiquated voting laws, he put little public effort into championing the issue and none of the reforms made it into the budget that was passed.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are interested in reforming the “scaffold law,” which holds contractors strictly liable for height-related accidents in the interest of protecting construction workers, with legislation that would attempt to apportion liability based on fault. Advocates for reform are encouraged by a new bill from Democratic Assembly Member John McDonald, introduced earlier this session.

A bill aimed at controlling the sale and use of tobacco e-cigarettes advanced in the Senate, which syncs well with de Blasio’s goal to reduce tobacco usage, including the vaporizers. The legislation, called Tobacco 21, raises the smoking age from 18 to 21 and is already the law in eight New York counties. It passed the Senate health committee on Tuesday.

One issue likely to once again fall to the wayside this year is government ethics reform, particularly campaign finance reform, which could involve the closure of the “LLC loophole,” which allows lawmakers to benefit from nearly unlimited campaign contributions from powerful interest groups, or a system of public campaign financing. The governor proposed those measures and others, like legislative term limits and restrictions on legislators’ outside income, but none went anywhere in budget negotiations.

The Senate, however, came back to session this week and passed a bill that would put into law eight-year term limits for leadership positions in both the Senate and Assembly. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Joseph Griffo, a Republican from Rome, would codify Senate rules put in place in 2009, limiting the number of years a legislator can serve as a house leader or even committee chair. The bill has been sent to the Assembly.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat who has given several indications that he is considering a presidential run in 2020, has been criticized by some -- including DeFrancisco -- for focusing too much on his national profile instead of state issues. When asked about the suggestion that he is eyeing a national bid during his announcement of the budget deal earlier this month, Cuomo laughed it off.

Cuomo’s appointment this week of Maria Comella, a Republican strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Chris Christie, and a scheduled June fundraiser in New York City featuring former Vice President Joe Biden, albeit for his 2018 reelection campaign, have continued to fuel the rumors.

Both houses are adjourned for the week and will return to session May 1.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 24


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio had a busy weekend that took a tragic turn. On Saturday, the mayor made an Earth Day announcement on green jobs and spoke at the Sikh Day Parade. On Sunday, the mayor spoke at two churches and appeared on Univision before heading to Queens Village after a fire there killed five people. The mayor addressed the tragedy after being briefed by his fire commissioner. De Blasio was scheduled to speak Sunday evening at the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats Annual Dinner.

On Monday, "de Blasio, First Lady Chirlane McCray and Chancellor Carmen Fariña will make an education announcement" at P.S. 1 The Courtlandt School in the Bronx. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will also participate in the announcement. In the 7 and 10 p.m. hours Monday, the Mayor will make his weekly appearance on NY1’s Road to City Hall. At 7 p.m. Monday, de Blasio "will deliver remarks at the Queens County Democratic Organization’s Friends of Queens County Event."

And, we know that on Thursday evening, de Blasio is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting in Queens, co-hosted by City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer.

Post-budget legislative session begins in Albany on Monday and is scheduled to stretch until mid-June. With a great deal included in the recently-passed budget, many -- including Governor Andrew Cuomo -- are expecting a fairly quiet two months of session. There are a number of issues that were not resolved in the budget, though, but it is unclear how much life voting and ethics reforms will have, for example. The Legislature must deal with mayoral control of New York City schools given that the latest one-year extension will expire in June and nothing on it was included in the budget. We’ll see what legislators are talking about when they return to Albany this week.

Also this week, on Thursday Cuomo will be presiding over an opening ceremony for the new Kosciuszko Bridge, according to The Daily News -- see below for details.

Among many others listed below, a couple of other highlights for the week include: a City Planning hearing on the East Midtown rezoning proposal and, from Wednesday through the weekend, the annual National Action Network convention, hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton, which will feature Bernie Sanders, Eric Holder, and many others, including city officials.

It’s also a very busy week at the New York City Council, especially Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, with a variety of committee hearings, and a meeting of the full Council on Tuesday. See below for all the details.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany.

At 11 a.m. Monday, #CLOSErikers will rally on the steps of City Hall to react to the mayor’s recent decision to close Rikers Island jails in 10 years and "demand city move forward immediately with clear plans to Close Rikers Island." "Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Boone, and Matt McGorry will be among those there "to declare proposed ten-year timeline is too long" and demand that de Blasio: "appoint someone to lead a speedy process of closing the facility,put forward a serious plan for closure, and immediately act on criminal justice reforms to reduce the Rikers population."

At noon Monday, “New York City Council member Eric Ulrich will throw his support behind New York Mayoral Candidate Bo Dietl on the steps of City Hall and make a major announcement.”

At the City Council on Monday

  • The Committee on Transportation will meet at 10 a.m. to vote on proposed laws in relation to “a study regarding transportation deserts” and “requiring the Department of Transportation to notify emergency service providers about resurfacing, including paving and milling.”
  • The Committee on Oversight and Investigations and the Committee on Public Housing will meet jointly at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing “examining DOI’s report on NYCHA’s permanent exclusion policy,” as well as to discuss a proposed law “in relation to reporting on persons who have been permanently excluded from public housing.”
  • The Committee on Women’s Issues will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws in relation to improving gender and racial equity in the city, as well as a resolution “calling upon the United States Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”
  • The Committee on Education will meet at 10 a.m. to vote on a local law “in relation to expanding distribution of college savings plan materials in schools to include pre-kindergarten and to distributing college savings plan materials to parents or guardians within three months after a child’s date of birth.”
  • The Committee on Technology will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “privacy of city data.”
  • The Committee on Contracts will meet at 1 p.m. to vote on several proposed laws related to VENDEX and to online access to city contracts
  • The Committee on Small Business will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss several proposed laws.
  • The Committee on Environmental Protection will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws related to “phasing out the use of fuel oil grade no. 4” and to “exemptions from air conditioning prohibitions.”

At 4 p.m. Monday, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer will host the “NYC Urban Manufacturing Symposium,” discussing the needs of manufacturers “in multiple sectors - what they’re making, what kinds of spaces they need, and how zoning can help or hurt them.” The event will be held at the High School of Fashion Industries.

Tuesday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

Also Tuesday in Albany, the New York City Joint Commission on Public Ethics will hold its monthly meeting.

The full City Council will be in session on Tuesday starting at 1:30 p.m. This will be prefaced by the usual “pre-Stated” press conference led by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Also at the City Council on Tuesday, the Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, City & State will host the CSR Awards: Sustainability & Environmental Impact, honoring individuals and companies “that promote sustainability initiatives in the energy, transportation, food industries, and more.” The event will also feature a panel with Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation; Vincent Sapienza, acting Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection; and Mark Chambers, director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, City Council Members Rafael Espinal and Stephen Levin, along with the Sierra Club, will hold a press conference “to announce City Council resolution regarding Electric bus fleet during the L train shutdown” at the Bedford Avenue L Train stop entrance at North 7th St. and Driggs Ave in Williamsburg.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute will host its “Urban Food Policy Forum: What Would It Take to Grow a Regional Food Economy?” Discussion will center around how upstate and downstate New York can more sustainably produce and trade food.

At noon Tuesday, Senator Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Amy Paulin will hold a press conference at the Capitol in Albany “to discuss the Child-Parent Security Act, legislation they co-authored that would legally establish a child’s relationship to his/her parents when the child was conceived through third-party reproduction, which would include children born through gestational surrogacy arrangements.”

At 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Vera Institute of Justice will host “The Making of Mass Incarceration in America,” featuring Harvard assistant professor of history and African & African-American studies Elizabeth Hinton.

On Tuesday at 1 p.m., schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will attend Team Up! Tuesday event with Police Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill at Murry Bergtraum Campus.

At 1 p.m. at City Hall, there will be a "Fair Fares" rally led by Riders Alliance and others. Public Advocate Letitia James will be among those to speak.

On Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m., "Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer will host "The Future of Biking in NYC," a mini-expo and forum on new developments in urban bicycling."

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal will hold a town hall meeting at Center at West Park on the Upper West Side. Public Advocate Letitia James will make remarks.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, First Lady Chirlane McCray “will host the first of five Community Conversations to connect directly with New Yorkers in the Bronx.” She will be joined by City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, Deputy Mayor for Strategic Initiatives Richard Buery, and Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio.

Wednesday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At the City Council on Wednesday

  • The Committee on Aging and the Subcommittee on Senior Centers will meet jointly at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws and resolutions.
  • The Committees on Veterans and Civil Rights will meet jointly at 10 a.m. to discuss a proposed law “in relation to prohibiting discrimination on the basis of uniformed service,” as well as resolutions to designate the month of May as “Military Appreciation Month” and June 22 as “Veterans Tribute and Advocacy Day” in New York City.
  • The Committees on Education, Public Safety, and Immigration will meet jointly at 11 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws relating to immigrant safety, particularly for minors.
  • The Committee on Recovery and Resiliency will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding the “resiliency of NYC’s electric power.”
  • The Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to “requiring agencies to notify food rescue organizations before disposing of food” and “facilitating food donations.”
  • The Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet at 2 p.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to used car sales.

From Wednesday until Sunday, the National Action Network will hold its 26th Annual National Convention at the Sheraton Times Square. Numerous panels will be held throughout the convention featuring notable people discussing issues such as “voting rights, criminal justice reform, immigration, health care, education, corporate responsibility, economic equity and more.” The event will conclude with a televised forum called “Measuring the Movement” hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Others who will speak at the event include Senator Bernie Sanders, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, Samuel L. Jackson, Mothers of the Movement, Harry Belafonte, and many more.

Beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday, the Manhattan Institute will host “Student Discipline and Disorder,” discussing the impact of the Obama administration’s orders to reduce suspensions in schools.

At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the New York City Bar Association will host a panel to discuss New York’s Clean Energy Standard and Reforming the Energy Vision.

Starting at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development will hold its 7th Annual Community Development Conference. The keynote speaker will be Maria T. Vullo, the Superintendent of Financial Services for New York State.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, City Council Member Andy King will celebrate the Week of the Young Child “with book readings to pre-K youngsters” at the Williamsbridge NAACP Early Childhood Education Center in the Bronx.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, the Urban Lab at NYU’s School of Professional Studies will host “The New Urban Crisis” at NYU’s Kimmel Center, exploring “how America’s urban revival has turned into a new urban crisis.” Speakers will include NY1 anchor Errol Louis; Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future; Juliette Michaelson of the Regional Planning Association; and others.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting. At this meeting, the proposed Greater East Midtown Rezoning will be considered.

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Center for New York City Affairs will host “Winning Ideas: Prized Solutions Showcase,” honoring the winners of the Winning Ideas: Reimagining NYC competition for New School students on how to improve the City.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and OATH Commissioner Fidel Del Valle will host a “What to do when you get a summons” town hall at the Harlem State Office Building.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Manhattan Republican Party will host a mayoral candidates screening featuring Republicans Paul Massey and Michel Faulkner, and Independent Bo Dietl, at the Metropolitan Republican Club. Following the screening, there will be an info session “on how to run for elected office.”

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday

  • The Committee on Health will meet at 10 a.m.
  • The Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws relating to bail and “permitting arrestees to access contact information.”
  • The Committee on Contracting will meet at 10 a.m. relating to “requiring city agencies to accept procurement invoices electronically” and “prohibiting discrimination in public contracting.”
  • The Committee on Civil Service and Labor will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss a proposed law “in relation to reporting of pay and employment equity data.”
  • The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding the “tenant interim lease program.”
  • The Committee on Governmental Operations will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss a proposed law relating to “increasing the cap on public funds available.”

At 8 a.m. Thursday, City & State will host “On Health Care,” with panels discussing the potential impact of “Trumpcare” and repealing Obamacare on New York, “addressing epidemics and risk factors,” and “working across sectors to address social determinants of health.” Speakers include Public Advocate Tish James, City Council Member Andrew Cohen, Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts President Robin Chappelle Golston, State Senate Health Committee Chair Kemp Hannon, Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, and more.

At noon Thursday, the New York City Bar Association will host “Public Affairs Luncheon: The Changing Face of Education,” discussing the problems public universities are facing, especially regarding “the fallen financial support from states and localities.” Dr. Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor Emeritus of CUNY, will speak.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, Mayor de Blasio, Public Advocate Tish James, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, all recently endorsed by the Kings County Democrats, “are expected to join Brooklyn elected and party officials at a Borough Hall rally.”

At 6 p.m. Thursday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, along with Council Members Rosie Mendez and Corey Johnson, will host a forum “to address the needs of trans and gender non-conforming community members in New York City.”

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education will hold a hearing at Harlem Hospital Center & Pavilion regarding “charter schools, public schools, and issues surrounding quality education.” The Task Force was formed following the passage of a resolution “calling for a moratorium on new charter schools until there was an examination of governance issues within charter schools, and a fuller determination of charter schools' relationship to, and effect on, traditional public schools.”

Thursday at 7 p.m., “Gov. Cuomo will officially open the new Kosciuszko Bridge this week with a party and a light show, the Daily News has learned.” There will be an accompanying light and music show.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Mayor de Blasio, Council Majority Leader Jimmy van Bramer, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and Senator Michael Gianaris will host a town hall at Queens Vocational and Technical High School in Long Island City.

Friday and the weekend
At 8 a.m. Friday, Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia will address the Queens Chamber of Commerce, discussing “commercial waste zone” policy and its effect on Queens businesses.

At 8:30 a.m. Friday, the Bronx Tech Summit will commence at the Metropolitan College of New York. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. will give remarks, and numerous panels will convene discussing the borough’s tech scene and how technology is used and can be used in the borough’s infrastructure.

At 9 a.m. Friday, the Murphy Institute at CUNY will host “Confronting the Tragedy: Law Enforcement, Unionism, & Communities of Color,” discussing the role that the labor movement plays in the criminal justice system.

At 11 a.m. Friday, IGNITE will host New York Young Women's Political Mobilization Lunch at the Weissman School of Arts and Science at Baruch College.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer will deliver opening remarks at “Harlem and the Future: Preserving Culture & Sustaining Historic Character in a Changing Environment,” discussing the question “what does the future of Harlem look like.” The keynote will be delivered by Chris Fair of Resonance Consultancy; closing remarks will be delivered by author Michael Henry Adams.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, City Council Member Ben Kallos and Manhattan CB 11 will host their “Spirit of Service” event at the Children’s Aid Society.

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Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

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by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

‘Open The Books’ Site Tracks Government Spending, Aims to Reduce Waste


Adam Andrzejewski

Adam Andrzejewski (photo: The Manhattan Institute)


Illinois-based businessman and one-time candidate for Governor of that state, Adam Andrzejewski, boasts of running the “world’s largest private repository of public spending” with 3.5 billion individually captured government expenditures. Andrzejewski is the CEO and founder of OpenTheBooks.com, an online transparency tool launched by his nonpartisan, nonprofit group, aptly named American Transparency, with the stated goals of reducing waste in government spending and combatting corruption.

Speaking to a room of about 90 people at an upscale club in Midtown Manhattan, at an event hosted by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, Andrzejewski laid out his organization’s mission: “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” His pet project stems from his unsuccessful run as a Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois in 2010, when he said he ran on a platform of “forensic audits of state spending” and “aggressive transparency,” which he believes resonated with voters.

Sourcing vast swathes of data through thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests each year, Andrzejewski says the website now contains nearly all federal expenditures since 2000, checkbook spending from 48 of 50 states from the last 10 years, and data on salary, pension, and vendor spending from about 60,000 municipalities.

In New York State, he said, they are close to having compiled all federal, state, and local expenditures. “We have about 90 cents on every dollar right now,” Andrzejewski said.

OpenTheBooks has made news in the past, with what Andrzejewski calls “oversight reports,” such as an analysis of spending on luxury art by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs; a report on the billions in public funds that go to Ivy League universities through tax benefits and other payments; and one on non-military federal agencies procuring military equipment; among others. The project also launched a mobile application, that allows users to pinpoint federal spending down to their zip code, allowing for “instant journalism,” Andrzejewski says.

More recently, after President Donald Trump’s threat to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, the website analyzed the scope of those potential cuts and their possible effect on municipalities. Within the next 30 days, the nonprofit will release its latest report on cash compensation at all federal agencies.

“The amount of federal waste, fraud, corruption and taxpayer abuse is systemic, it’s embedded and we do need [a] war on waste to root it out,” said Andrzejewski in response to a question from one of the attendees. “We need a new arms race of federal transparency from the private sector up against government,” he later said, again painting the fight in military terms.

The transparency website is not completely novel for New York, where others both in the private and public sectors have attempted to make government data, particularly about spending, publicly available and accessible. Reclaim New York, a nonprofit government transparency project, has compiled checkbook spending while the Empire Center for Public Policy, a think tank, has more than 50 data sets on the state’s taxes, debt, spending, and other economic measures. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s Open Book New York portal shows state spending, while in New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Checkbook NYC shows city level indicators.

Andrzejewski praised those efforts (he worked with Reclaim New York on compiling New York’s spending data). “Kudos to the elected officials that don’t need a lawsuit but open the books by making that good government decision,” he told Gotham Gazette after the formal portion of the event, a lunch centered around his presentation. But he maintained that New York is the same as other states. “It’s a level playing field...New York is neither worse nor better but units of government do comply with the law, which is good news,” he said.

For a man whose mission is transparency, however, Andrzejewski would not disclose his group’s donors, saying only that they consist of “foundations, corporations and individuals” who may face pressure if made public. He insisted that none of the group’s funding came from government sources. When asked if this was at odds with his goals, he refuted the premise. “We don’t need more private sector transparency,” he said. “We’re demanding government transparency.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ramped Up Economic Development Funding, Less Transparency in New State Budget


Cuomo Buffalo

Gov. Cuomo in Buffalo (photo: The Governor's Office)


The new state budget, passed nine days into the fiscal year, is by many accounts a win for New Yorkers, with the inclusion of, among other things, significant new funding for education and affordable housing, college affordability measures, billions for clean water infrastructure, and important criminal justice reforms.

The agreement hammered out by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature also included major provisions central to what is perhaps the governor’s top ongoing priorities. When he realized they would miss the April 1 deadline for a new spending plan, Cuomo squeezed into the state’s emergency budget extender bills funding for all of his signature economic development programs and splashy infrastructure projects, forcing lawmakers to accept them or risk a government shutdown.

The nearly $1.8 billion in funds remained when the deal was then reached for a full fiscal year budget, which overrode the extender bills a week later. This money includes $150 million for the state’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs); $500 million for the next phase of Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” investments; and $700 million for the creation of a new wing of Manhattan’s Penn Station.

The Legislature also agreed to a provision that would allow Cuomo the discretion to make mid-year changes to the budget in the event of major federal cuts to New York, though the governor conceded that the Legislature could have 90 days to come up with an alternative plan, which would override the executive’s plan. Citing uncertainty from the federal government, Cuomo made clear early on that he would not agree to a budget that did not include this type of flexibility.

“I want to make sure we do not overcommit ourselves financially. We have never been in this situation before, where you basically have a federal government that has said that, in both their rhetoric and their actions, that there will be a financial cost to the state of New York,” Cuomo explained on April 5, two days before he announced a budget deal.

But while it forges full speed ahead on the governor’s signature economic development and infrastructure programs and gives him additional budgetary powers, the final spending plan fails to beef up disclosure and oversight measures on the governor’s ambitious spending agenda. It also lacks any procurement reform and removes at least one crucial disclosure requirement previously attached to the governor’s Start-Up NY business development program that runs on tax incentives.

Critics say lax oversight and limited transparency requirements for state-run nonprofits, through which the state funnels tens of millions of dollars each year, make Cuomo’s economic development programs ripe for abuse. Last year, nine associates of Cuomo -- including top former aide Joe Percoco and economic development leader Alain Kaloyeros -- were arrested on federal charges for their roles in an elaborate pay-to-play scheme involving the governor’s signature programs. The charges center around bid-rigging, kickbacks, and bribes and laid bare gaps in contract review and oversight.

In the wake of these scandals, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released six recommendations for procurement reform, beginning with the restoration of the comptroller’s independent oversight of SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services contracts. The governor and Legislature stripped the comptroller’s office of this power in 2011 as they sought to speed the economic development process.

Other recommendations made by DiNapoli include prohibiting the use of non-profits to avoid procurement transparency laws, requiring state officials to follow the same procurement requirements as state agencies, creating tighter ethics requirements, implementing steeper penalties for those who abuse the procurement process, and requiring state agencies and their affiliates to make public all potential business opportunities in order level the playing field for all potential vendors.

In a statement after the new state budget was passed, DiNapoli expressed disappointment that procurement reform was not included.

“Hopefully before the end of session, the procurement reforms my office has advanced will be addressed,” said DiNapoli. “With heightened risks to federal aid, a clear understanding of the impact of spending, revenue and policy decisions in this budget is especially essential. My office will provide more detailed analysis of the enacted budget in the coming weeks.”

While it was immediately evident that procurement reforms -- like other government ethics, campaign finance, transparency, and voting reforms -- were not included in the budget, it will take time to unpack what is included, as DiNapoli indicated, in part because the budget was rushed through the Legislature over the weekend of April 7. Cuomo issued “messages of necessity” in order to waive the otherwise-necessary three-day bill review period.

One indication that reform measures were not likely to be included in the budget was how they were dealt with in the budget outlines put forth by Cuomo and each legislative majority. In their on-house budget resolutions, the Democratically- controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate both called for Cuomo’s 10 REDCs, which lawmakers have accused of self-dealing, to adhere to the Code of Ethics and FOIL requirements in the Public Officers Law, abide by the open meetings law, and mandate members file annual financial disclosure statements. However, the legislative houses rejected the governor’s proposals to require legislators to file conflicts of interest disclosure notices regarding their involvement in the spending of lump sum funds and to subject the Legislature to FOIL, among other reforms.

Ultimately, the governor and Legislature agreed upon more unspecified spending than before and fewer accountability measures at a fiscally uncertain time for New York State and in the wake of corruption scandals.

Since 2011, both the executive and legislative branches have been home to scandal, often featuring people on the inside seeking to exploit this unchecked cash flow for personal gain.

Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, unveiled in January, included $9.5 billion in funds in 44 separate economic development and infrastructure pots that do not specify any official as having authority and lack any disclosure and accountability about how the funds would be spent, according to Citizens Union, a government reform group, in its 2017 “Spending in the Shadows” report.

The analysis also identified $4.3 billion divided among 60 different pots of discretionary funding that are assigned to one or more elected officials and not subject to disclosure requirements -- a $2 billion increase from last year’s executive budget. “We do not know what the criteria is, we do not know what projects are being considered, and we don’t even know what projects are being denied,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union.

It is not yet clear exactly how much of the ‘shadowy’ money outlined in Cuomo’s executive budget made it into the final spending plan (Citizens Union has yet to do its analysis of the adopted budget).

Access to these vaguely defined funding streams make lawmakers particularly susceptible to corruption schemes like the ones executed by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, according to Dadey. Both Silver and Skelos were convicted on federal charges, leading to unmet calls for government ethics reforms.

“It’s an increasing problem in New York. We have 33 legislators who were forced from public office since 2000 because of misconduct. In the last six years alone 16 have been forced from office,” said Dadey at a press conference last month.

Meanwhile, an annual reporting requirement for Start-Up NY participants has been removed from this year’s budget, as first reported by Newsday. Since 2013, business owners were mandated to report how many jobs their companies created and how much money they’ve invested in their operations, or they would be removed from the program. Instead, the new state budget directs the state’s Empire State Development, which runs Start-Up NY, to publish broader reports on the program. A Cuomo administration source told Newsday the omission was an accident.

The three-year-old program grants businesses creating at least one new job per year and their employees up to a decade of tax relief for moving to or beginning in designated zones on or nearby public college campuses.

The Start-Up NY program drew criticism last year when annual reports showed that 1,135 jobs were created in its first two-and-a-half years, while $53 million was spent by Empire State Development on advertising the program. Cuomo in his executive budget requested a name change on the start-up initiative, and proposed loosening the requirements for participation in the program. The Legislature did not agree to these changes.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

10 Key Takeaways for New York City from the New State Budget


Cuomo de Blasio


A new $153 billion New York state budget was passed through the Legislature Sunday evening, nine days into the new fiscal year, following a particularly lengthy and tumultuous negotiation period.

After Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a budget deal Friday night, the Assembly approved the budget Saturday, while State senators -- called back to Albany from their districts -- moved through the final budget bills the following day.

Within the spending plan are items that have serious ramifications for New York City, many of them tied to the revenue bill, or this year’s budget “big ugly,” legislation that encompasses a hodgepodge of controversial issues. In this case, the criminal justice reform measure known as “raise the age,” New York City’s 421-a property tax abatement program, charter school aid, and an extension of the millionaires’ tax, were among this budget season’s most contentious topics.

Deals were reached on these and other complicated matters, like new CUNY and SUNY scholarship parameters, after state lawmakers had passed a budget “extender” on Monday, April 3, two days after the new fiscal year had started.

[Related: Cuomo Announces $153 Billion State Budget Deal]

With a new deal in place, Governor Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, held a press conference at 9 p.m. Friday night and called the new state budget “a blueprint for the future of the state.”

In a Daily News op-ed column over the weekend, Cuomo wrote of the new budget, “Never has New York achieved more, built more or produced more impactful legislation.”

While Cuomo is touting a “legacy” achievement in raising the age and a “national model” in his college affordability program, among other headline accomplishments, a spokesperson for the governor said in a statement that “if 7 days late gets the state a plan this great, we will do it every year."

For New York City and Mayor Bill de Blasio, there are several victories in the new state budget, such as the release of a significant influx of affordable housing funds, but there are also a number of disappointments, such as the absence of the “mansion tax” or an extension of mayoral control of city schools. De Blasio has said several times this year and last that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, is a great ally and advocate for the city’s interests. He’s indicated that Gov. Cuomo is inconsistent in his help for New York City.

For the state’s largest city, the spending plan offers some funding clarity and a variety of important policy decisions. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council will now move ahead with their budget process -- a new city spending plan is due by July 1. Of the $153.1 billion in the state operating budget for the new fiscal year, it is not yet clear how much will flow to New York City. When de Blasio outlined his preliminary budget for next city fiscal year in February, he estimated $14.5 billion in state grants, contributing to the $83 billion in overall spending he proposed.

Within all these numbers and major state policy decisions, there are a lot of important funding and policy points in the new state budget for New York City.

1. Cost Shifts & Funding Cuts
During his state budget testimony on January 30, de Blasio pushed back on the more than $100 million in cuts and cost shifts to New York City proposed in Cuomo’s executive budget, primarily related to placement of foster children and special education services. Most of these cuts remained in the final spending plan, though some were modified or removed, according to the mayor’s office.

Notably, a $32.5 million cut to the city’s public health programs proposed by Cuomo did not make it into the state budget. Also, the governor proposed a $17 million cut to New York City’s senior centers, but $13 million was restored in the adopted budget.

As outlined in Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, $20 million was ultimately slashed from state reimbursement for special education services in private settings, effectively eliminating any state share of the costs. Finally, $44 million earmarked for foster care services was cut.

2. Millionaire’s Tax & Mansion Tax
Despite resistance from Senate Republicans, Cuomo got his way on the millionaires’ tax extension. The tax was first approved by the legislature after the 2007 financial crisis, extended multiple times, and was set to expire at the end of 2017. Cuomo insisted that a failure to renew it would leave a “tremendous hole in the budget,” but pushed back against the Assembly’s efforts to expand it to include higher taxes on more income brackets. The millionaire’s tax is extended for two years.

Cuomo also opposed de Blasio’s proposed “mansion tax,” a 2.5 percent incremental tax on purchases of residential property worth more than $2 million. The mayor intended to use the tax, which would have been levied on buyers, in order to subsidize affordable housing for senior citizens.

De Blasio along with allies in the Senate and Assembly put significant effort into pushing the “mansion tax” as well as the expansion of the millionaires’ tax, but neither made it into the final budget. De Blasio, at an unrelated press conference Monday, noted that in light of the uncertainty coming from the federal government, the mansion tax could still be on the table. “We’re gonna continue to fight through the legislative session on some of these items,” he said.

3. Mayoral Control of Schools
During negotiations, news reports indicated that a one-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools might be included in the state budget, rather than hashed out during the legislative session to follow, as it had been the last two years. But the enacted budget did not address the policy, seemingly because Senate Republicans opposed its inclusion.

It would have been the third year in a row that de Blasio received a one year extension -- Cuomo has called for a three year extension, the Assembly has pushed for the same, if not longer, while de Blasio has called for making it permanent. Including it in the budget would've softened the blow for the mayor, who will now have to go hat in hand before the Legislature as he did last year and the year before.

When asked about the mayoral control snub at his Monday news conference, the mayor dismissed the issue as typical Albany shenanigans. “I never had the illusion that it would be easy to get it done in the budget, I would’ve liked to get it done in the budget. But you know I understood the way it’s played out in previous years was the most likely outcome again.” de Blasio said.

The mayor said he is confident it will be worked out during the coming session, which runs through June, like mayoral control, noting that no viable alternative to mayoral control has been presented by the Senate GOP, which has used authorization of mayoral control as leverage over the mayor since he tried to flip the chamber to Democrats in 2014.

4. The New 421-a
De Blasio has criticized the governor’s version of the 421-a property tax abatement, which is meant to spur affordable housing development in the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. The prior program expired two years ago and has been the source of significant strife between de Blasio and Cuomo.

The governor rebranded 421-a as “Affordable New York” this year. De Blasio has been cool to the governor’s version of the program, noting that in the long-run it will be more expensive for city taxpayers and will produce fewer affordable units than the version de Blasio proposed in 2015. Still, the current version is an upgrade from the old, broken 421-a system, and one that New York City “can live with,” de Blasio said Monday.

“I understand that in Albany a lot of things happen. There were changes made to the plan that weren’t the changes I would’ve have thought of, but they still left us with a plan we could live with,” said de Blasio.

According to Cuomo’s office, the “new program will create an estimated 2,500 new units of affordable housing per year.”

5. Affordable Housing & NYCHA
Agreement on 421-a renewal helped trigger the release of $2.5 billion in funds that were earmarked for 100,000 units of affordable housing and 6,000 units of supportive housing in last year’s budget, but were tied up in disagreement among Cuomo and legislative leaders over how it should be distributed.

De Blasio’s administration welcomed the influx of affordable housing cash, much of which will head to developers and projects in New York City.  “We always welcome additional money and assistance from the state,” said de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein. “This funding couldn’t come a day too soon.”

A coalition of 11 housing advocacy groups -- including the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH), AARP, the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, and others  --  echoed those sentiments.

“The commitment made today will profoundly impact the lives of thousands of New Yorkers, including 88,000 people currently homeless throughout the state and nearly one million households paying more than half their income in rent each month,” reads a joint statement issued by the group. “What’s critical is that this budget doesn’t exclude anyone and it provides the long-term funding needed to bring about real change.”

As promised in Cuomo’s executive budget, the final spending plan allows $200 million for NYCHA capital funds over five years for general repairs. Another $150 million will help preserve Mitchell-Lama buildings and other middle income buildings. The de Blasio administration will be eager to see the money spent through state agencies -- $100 million allocated two years ago for NYCHA repairs has yet to be spent, something de Blasio has cited frequently in recent months.

6. Infrastructure & Design-Build
While the budget included Cuomo’s entire wishlist of ambitious capital projects and economic development programs, it notably did not make changes to the state's procurement practices, the nature of which have contributed to a corruption scandal.

Construction of several major capital projects pertaining to New York City were approved, including the following projects for the coming year:

John F. Kennedy International Airport - For the coming fiscal year, Cuomo outlined $564 million out of $1.5 billion in spending by the Department of Transportation to improve the roadway congestion leading to JFK. The MTA and Port Authority will also evaluate two proposals: expanding JFK AirTrain service and exploring the possibility of creating a “one-seat” subway ride to the airport.

Penn Station - The State is investing $700 million for the first phase of a $3 billion transformation of the James A. Farley Post Office building into a new train hall for the station.

Long Island Railroad - The state will invest $120 million to provide enhancements to 16 LIRR stations and to improve system connectivity.

MTA - The 2015-2019 MTA transit capital plan includes $28 billion in investments, including city and state funds, with the state continuing to contribute a larger share than the city.

Empire State Trail - This $200 million continuous, multipurpose bike and hike path would connect New York City Hudson River Greenway to Buffalo, Albany, and Canada. Though the Senate nixed the project in its one-house budget, and the Assembly recommended designating $20 million toward the Cuomo proposal, $53 million for the first phase has been approved in this year’s budget.

Meanwhile, construction of New York City’s own capital projects will not be expedited by authorization of design-build, which allows municipalities to save time and money by using a single contract for design and construction services. Despite pushback from de Blasio during his January budget testimony, the final budget expanded design-build for state agencies, but excluded New York City.

“In New York City, we have projects in every borough that could benefit from the time and money Design Build legislation would save. It’s disappointing to be excluded, even while the program expands across the State,” said de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein in a statement.

7. Ethics and Voting Reforms
In November, ahead of the 2016 presidential election, De Blasio preached about reforming New York’s arcane electoral system, citing the energy around the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders as inspiration. He insisted that New York had a long way to go towards making government more transparent and accountable.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also unveiled a package of electoral and government ethics reform proposals at the start of the year, as did Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Nonetheless, the issues failed to gain traction during state budget negotiations. De Blasio chose to prioritize affordable housing, and Cuomo threw little weight behind his own reform proposals.

When de Blasio was asked whether he prioritized the mansion tax over electoral reform at Monday’s news conference, he defended his choice and renewed his promise to fight for electoral change.

“I don’t sort of think of them as on a grading system,” said de Blasio. “It’s a major priority. And we’re looking to get done as much as we can get done. We’re looking for every opportunity. You know these sessions have a life of their own. My job here is to really bang the drum for electoral reform -- and I know a lot of the folks that are going to as well -- and sort of create the momentum that makes this a year we can get it done.”

8. Raise the Age
Raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 was a priority for Democratic members of the Senate and Assembly, including Speaker Carl Heastie, but the measure has long faced opposition from Senate Republicans. The compromise reached in the budget is being touted as a major progressive victory for Cuomo and Democrats in the Legislature.

This will have implications for New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail and the city in general. The new measures will be phased in over time, raising the age of to 17 beginning on October 1, 2018, and subsequently raising the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 on October 1, 2019.

Youthful offenders will no longer be permitted to be housed in adult facilities and offenders under the age of 18 will no longer be placed or held at Rikers Island in New York City as of October 1, 2018. They will instead be placed at a specialized juvenile detention facility.

“New Yorkers should all be proud that their state has finally joined 48 others and will no longer treat the vast majority of 16- and 17-year-olds like adults in our criminal justice system,” said Goldstein on behalf of Mayor de Blasio.

9. Excelsior Scholarship
A major victory for Cuomo, the Excelsior Scholarship, introduced ahead of the governor’s 2017 State of the State with the help of former Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, will be phased in over three years and, once phased in, will provide tuition-free CUNY and SUNY schooling to full-time in-state students from families earning $125,000 a year or less.

The program includes an expansion of the State’s Tuition Assistance Program, so as to be inclusive of students at private universities, but does not provide for student “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said de Blasio’s administration welcomes the program. “The tuition assistance provisions included in the enacted budget will further break down barriers to higher education and help equip the next generation of New Yorkers with the skills necessary to succeed in an ever-evolving economy,” said spokesperson Freddi Goldstein.

10. Education Aid
The enacted state budget increased education aid by $1.1 billion overall, an increase of 4.4 percent from last year. The state’s education aid budget now totals $25.8 billion, which includes a $700 million increase in Foundation Aid, the supplemental funding allocated to local school districts to ensure that each student receives a “sound basic education” as required by the state constitution.

New York City is set to receive $10.2 billion in school aid for the 2018 fiscal year, an increase of $387 million, including $337 million in foundation aid.

State lawmakers also reached a compromise over charter school funding, one of the major hold-ups in negotiations, according to Cuomo. They agreed to increase per-pupil state funding for charters by $500 in the upcoming school year instead of allowing it to increase to $1,500 per pupil after a tuition freeze was set to expire later this year and such an increase automatically. They also connected increases in future charter funding to district school spending increases.

The $500 charter tuition increase will cost New York City, home to most of the state’s charters, $95 million each year, according to mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein. The city will bear those costs in the next school year.

For Mayor de Blasio, an opponent of charter schools and a close ally of the teachers union, the education aid budget is a mixed bag. Although charter tuition costs will increase for the city, the enacted budget did not include a separate proposal to increase the cap of new charter schools that can open in New York City, which the governor had proposed in his executive budget. The budget compromise also includes an increase in funding for charters that use private buildings instead of public space. These charters will receive 30 percent of their rent or tuition rate for each student, up from 20 percent in the previous budget.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

With reporting by Samar Khurshid.

Note: this article was corrected to more clearly explain the funding around senior centers.



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